LA QUINTA, Calif. – Phil Mickelson began the head games with his 18-year-old practice-round opponent Akshay Bhatia early in their nine-hole match on Wednesday. Both players had just run downhill birdie putts at the 10th hole at PGA West’s Nicklaus Tournament Course less than 4 feet past the hole when Lefty, the 50-year-old crafty veteran, said, “I know we’re going to both make them, but let’s putt them anyway. You’re a little closer so, it’s in your favor.”
Bhatia, who turned pro without attending a day of college, received an education in gamesmanship that they don’t teach at any school of higher learning. Funny enough, Mickelson missed the putt and he’d have to lighten his bill fold for the second day in a row to the kid. Bhatia, who opened with an even-par 72 in the first round of the American Express, showed the promise that suggests he could be one of the bright young lights on the PGA Tour before too long. With his Gumby-esque physique, Bhatia drilled a 5-iron from 221 yards to inches from the hole at the par-5 11th hole that he said would’ve been his first albatross.
“Obviously it’s good,” Mickelson said. “I just wanted you to see how close it was.”
And when Bhatia continued to lay down the hammer, Mickelson said, “I take my beating and then I move on.”
This was a classic example of young vs. old, the protege vs. the aging superstar looking for one more score. It’s hard to say who is benefiting more from this burgeoning relationship. It has the feel of Mark O’Meara serving as a big brother of sorts to Tiger Woods at the start of Woods’ career. Woods lifted O’Meara to new heights, including two majors in 1998. Mickelson remembers receiving mentorship when he was around Bhatia’s age from former PGA Tour winner Howard Twitty, who played a pro-scratch with Mickelson when he was in college at Troon Country Club in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“That meant so much to me to have a chance to play with a player of his caliber that has won multiple times on Tour, and I don’t think he realizes how I looked up to him and how much I respected and appreciated that opportunity to play with him,” Mickelson said of Twitty. “And even to this day, 30 years later, I’m still remembering how that felt.”
For several years now, Mickelson has taken young up-and-comers, such as Keegan Bradley, Brendan Steele and most recently Jon Rahm under his wing and included them in his money games. It keeps Mickelson feeling young and relevant and has made him the unofficial captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Davis Love III, who is known as the godfather of the “Sea Island Mafia” of Tour pros who live in the coastal Georgia community of Saint Simons Island, has benefited from a similar elder-statesman role. In 2015, at age 51, Love won for the 21st time on Tour at the Wyndham Championship and became the last of seven players to win on Tour after turning 50.
“For me, to play with young kids like Akshay, who are so talented, it actually motivates me and it makes me feel and remember what it felt like to play golf as a kid, when I was a kid, and the love and passion that I have for it because as he starts out on his career, you can see and sense his excitement for the game, his drive, his motivation, his work ethic, and that is infectious,” Mickelson said. “I enjoy being around, and always have enjoyed being around good talented young players like this, and I’m happy to answer any questions that they may have, but I also feed off of their energy, work ethic, and drive.”
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that is reminiscent of another memorable tandem of the silver screen: Vincent Lauria and Eddie Felson from the 1980s movie “The Color of Money.” Lauria, played by Tom Cruise, is Felson’s hotshot pool protégé. Felson, an aging hustler, is inspired to make a comeback. Paul Newman won an Oscar for reprising his role as Fast Eddie from “The Hustler.” In one final lesson, Mickelson offered double or nothing on the 18th green, but Bhatia wouldn’t take the bait. He’d only play for half the amount, wanting to protect some of his winnings. But seeing Mickelson’s competitive fire alive and well called to mind the final scene of The Color of Money.
Lauria: “What are you going to do when I kick your ass?”
Felson: “Pick myself up and let you kick me again. Just don’t put the money in the bank, kid. Because if I don’t whip you now, I’m gonna whip you next month in Dallas. … And if not then, then the month after that, in New Orleans.”
Lauria: “Oh, yeah? What makes you so sure?”
Felson: “Hey, I’m back.”
original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/01/22/phil-mickelsons-budding-relationship-with-teen-sensation-akshay-bhatia-is-proving-to-be-mutually-beneficial/